Independent investigators in Anaheim found what they described as widespread “corruption,” and “influence peddling.”
They also provided the public with an accounting of people connected to the controversy who refused to cooperate.
Investigators from the JL Group say many of the people and organizations they contacted withheld documents, declined interviews and delayed turning over information.
They also suggested there was a “potential” attempt to obstruct the investigation.
“Although JLG has limited definitive proof, we became concerned that certain entities and/or individuals outside of City staff may have potentially attempted to interfere in our investigation,” investigators wrote in a 353-page report released Monday.
“We believe that this interference may have been in the form of pressuring certain elected officials to not support our Investigation,” investigators continued. “To criticize our work, to dissuade witnesses from participating in our Investigation, and/or to undermine our Investigation by way of derogatory public comments directed at our team.”
Investigators also said they struggled to get ahold of some records within the city when they were given locked phones previously owned by Mayor Harry Sidhu and former Councilman Trevor O’Neil, which city staff and investigators weren’t able to open.
Council Tries to Hamstring Investigation
One of those struggles was the city council’s move to cut off the probe in February when the JL Group asked for $750,000 more to finish their investigation, despite warnings that any drop in funding would result in a half-baked report.
Almost all of the council seemed in favor of dialing back the scope of the investigation and expressed reluctance to spend more on the probe.
Mayor Ashleign Aitken, who ran her campaign on a platform of transparency and reform, questioned if that money could be used elsewhere – liking hiring more firefighters.
Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
Aitken and Councilwoman Norma Kurtz questioned what the city would get if they just wrapped up their investigation then
“What do we get with that if it looks like we just wrap it up right now?” Aitken asked at the February meeting.
Investigators said it would essentially kill the investigation.
“A decision at that point to curtail or even conclude the investigation would have rendered the Report incomplete and frankly of little value,” investigators wrote in their final report, delivered to the public late Monday on the city’s website.
Councilman Stephen Faessel – who is mentioned numerous times in the report – abstained, but the rest of the city council initially asked investigators to narrow their scope of work and come back with a new proposal.
“It would be reckless of me to approve taxpayer funds for an investigation that doesn’t have a clear scope,” said Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava at the council’s Feb. 7 meeting.
But investigators and the retired superior court judge overseeing the probe publicly pushed back.
“I am deeply concerned that if the City now requires a narrowing of the investigation’s focus it will no longer be seen by the public as truly “independent,” wrote Judge Clay Smith, who oversaw the investigation, in a letter to the city council.
“I submit that this is not in the best interest of anyone. Most significantly, it is not what was promised to the citizens of Anaheim.”
After a series of articles from Voice of OC on the investigation and pushback from residents, the council voted unanimously at the Feb. 28 council meeting to double the probe’s budget from $750,000 to $1.5 million and complete the investigation.
Faessel again abstained on the investigation vote.
Yet before voting to fully fund the probe, Rubalcava accused investigators of trying to “shakedown” the city by speaking to the press about what they were working on – an assertion the investigators pushed back on.
“I’m extremely, extremely concerned about your use of the term shakedown,” Smith told Rubalcava at the Feb. 28 meeting. “I don’t think I made comments or quotes about the substance of the investigation. I’m certain I did not say anything to the reporter that hasn’t been stated in public.”
Did Rubalcava Violate The City Charter?
Rubalcava ended up getting called out by investigators for having potentially improperly obtained contact information for voters and for directing city staff illegitimately.
Investigators say Rubalcava improperly took contact information from Anaheim First, a “resident advisory group,” created by the city’s Chamber of Commerce, and used the information to call residents for support during her campaign.
“For campaigning you call everybody right?” Rubalcava said to investigators when asked about the issue in the report. “I just got [an Anaheim First] binder from somebody in the community, Keith Olesen … I’m pretty sure I got her information off the website.”
Olesen was the president and CEO of Anaheim First, and investigators could not find any contact information for the people who got called on the group’s website.
In interviews with the investigators, Olesen said he gave Rubalcava the information before the election.
“It appeared that Councilmember Rubalcava made an unsolicited campaign call to this complainant. She acknowledged it,” investigators wrote. “It is clear Rubalcava did not obtain this person’s contact information from the Anaheim First website, as she claimed.”
Investigators said it was “beyond the scope of this investigation,” to determine if that action broke the law.
“However, we did conclude Councilmember Rubalcava was less than candid and forthcoming with us during her interview,” investigators wrote.
Rubalcava and Olesen did not return requests for comment.
More recently, investigators say after Rubalcava was elected, she directed city staff to work with the Orange County Business Council, her former employer, to set up “small business loan opportunities.”
“Council Member Rubaclava’s direction to (staff) directly violates the City’s Charter where she attempted to influence and direct the City staff member to engage in operational coordination with the Orange County Business Council,” investigators wrote.
City Manager Jim Vanderpool agreed that it was a violation of the city’s charter when he was made aware of the incident by investigators, according to the report.
Rubalcava is also the district director for state Assemblyman Avelino Valencia, a former Anaheim City Councilman who has called for a state audit of the city’s relationship with the Chamber of Commerce.
Business Interests Decline To Comment
While the city government largely cooperated with the investigation, aside from delays in turning over city devices and emails to the investigators, many of those outside city hall didn’t.
The city’s Chamber of Commerce, Disney and the LA Angels – all of which are named in the report as influencing policy at city hall – refused to turn over records to investigators, and in many cases refused to sit for interviews according to the report.
Employees of the Angels and Disney all refused to be interviewed.
While the current president of the Chamber Laura Cunningham sat for an interview, she declined to turn over any records to the investigators according to the report.
“Even though this refusal provides an interference upon which we can reasonably conclude that potential inculpatory evidence may be contained therein, the inability to obtain and review those records hampered this investigation,” investigators wrote.
All three organizations have not returned requests for comment from Voice of OC.
Jeff Love, one of the investigators on the report, declined to comment on the roadblocks they faced, saying the city had ordered them not to speak about it and referring reporters to city hall or the document itself, where investigators spoke in detail about their struggles.
Where is the DA?
Investigators also noted that District Attorney Todd Spitzer didn’t help with their investigation, despite initially showing an interest in what they’d found.
While the FBI’s corruption investigation became public over a year ago, Spitzer’s office has yet to announce any investigation or criminal charges of anyone in Orange County connected to the scandal.
Investigators say they sat down for a meeting with Spitzer in March, along with 15 other staff members at the DA’s office.
“We revealed information concerning what we believed was a potential criminal conspiracy and a theft/wrongful diversion of $1.5 million dollars of public funds,” investigators wrote. “The District Attorney and his staff met with us, listened to our comments, and asked questions.”
After that, investigators say the discussion dried up.
“JLG has had no further contact with the District Attorney’s staff in relationship to this meeting,” investigators wrote. “It is not known whether the District Attorney’s Office is engaged in their own investigation at this time.”
In a statement released Monday evening, Spitzer said his office was reviewing the report and had no timeline on any announcements.
“I am reviewing with my team to evaluate it for potential criminal conduct and I have no time frame at this time on any decisions,” Spitzer said.
Kimberly Edds, Spitzer’s spokesperson, declined to answer further questions.
The report ends with over 20 pages of suggested criminal charges for various people involved in the scandal, including money laundering, racketeering, bribery, perjury, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and mail fraud, along with violations of the state’s open meeting laws.
Reporter Hosam Elattar contributed to this story.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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